The Higgs Prize: When 'close' earns a cigar

Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and now, subatomic particles like the elusive Higgs boson.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor
Professor Peter Higgs looks for his boson on an earlier visit to CERN. It was probably just out of the picture.

Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and, now, in subatomic particles.

Scientists at the CERN physics laboratory near Geneva say they have finally, finally tracked down the elusive Higgs boson, the subatomic fleck that they believe is the missing piece in the puzzle to the "Standard Model" of physics, as Laura Shin in SmartPlanet's Science Scope section tells you in greater detail.

My commentary: Finding Higgs has implications for understanding petty things like the universe - thus, some have dubbed it the "God particle" - and by golly, CERN has done it.

Or maybe not.

You see, CERN said the same thing six months ago, when it sort of unofficially revealed that two of its teams had probably found the thing hiding in its metaphorical corner. SmartPlanet's John Rennie explained the probability well at the time.

CERN's Higgs teams haven't tossed a ringer, but they're close.

This time, CERN probably thinks that it is probably even more sure than it probably was in December when it probably found the boson. As CERN says on its website - specially gussied up for the occasion - "both experiments see strong indications for the presence of a new particle, which could be the Higgs boson."

"Indications"? "Could be"?

Hmmm. Am I the only one struck by a dash of doubt? No. As the BBC reports,

Both of the Higgs boson-hunting experiments at the LHC see a level of certainty in their data worthy of a "discovery." More work will be needed to be certain that what they see is a Higgs, however.

The finding would cap off a search that started nearly 50 years ago in the 1960s, when Professor Peter Higgs, now 83 and emeritus professor at Scotland's University of Edinburgh, first postulated the existence of a boson that gives mass to all things.

Until today, no one had been known to find it (at least not absolutely probably!), despite the best efforts of places like CERN,  where the hunt has included bashing particles together inside the $9 billion Large Hadron Collider. After last December's progress, CERN got so determined to corner the speck that it cranked up the 17-mile long LHC to 4 trillion electronvolts (what's the power consumption and CO2 footprint on that, I wonder!).

CERN even said it was prepared to turn the dial up to 7 trillion electronvolts if necessary. Seems it won't be. The already juiced particle collider has delivered the prize, and they're celebrating in Geneva. As the BBC reports,

The results announced at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), home of the LHC in Geneva, were met with loud applause and cheering.

Prof Peter Higgs, after whom the particle is named, wiped a tear from his eye as the teams finished their presentations in the Cern auditorium. "I would like to add my congratulations to everyone involved in this achievement," he added later. "It's really an incredible thing that it's happened in my lifetime."

Never mind that no one has suggested that results are the delusions wrought by a full moon - known to pull the particle collider out of shape and to contort data (nor am I seriously implying that the moon helped to expose the boson; but as Higgs physicists would agree, you often don't know things for absolute certainty).

Close enough! "Close" doesn't normally earn a cigar at the carnival, but pass 'em around to the bright men and women at CERN.

Heck, give two to the weepy professor. He deserves it. Renown University of Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking says don't stop with the stogie. "This is an important result, and should earn Peter Higgs a Nobel prize," Hawking tells the BBC in an interview posted after CERN's announcement, in which Hawking reveals he lost a $100 bet that scientists would never find the boson.

Just think what Higgs could win if he actually throws a ringer.

Note: Story updated with Hawking's "Nobel prize" quote at 10 a.m. PDT, July 4.

Photos: Prof. Higgs, from CERN. Horseshoes, from Wikimedia.

Hunting Higgs, on Smartplanet:

The Neutrino Saga, on SmartPlanet:

More CERN on SmartPlanet:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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